The young woman on the sidewalk outside the Carondelet Street entrance to Rabouin School looked assured in her suit, like she'd been lawyering for years. In fact, Creshel Dillon, 17, had only been a lawyer once before, just four months previous, in a November 2004 mock appellate court hearing. Then, as now, she was playing a role she'd practiced in class with a few friends, coached and cajoled by the questioning of law studies teacher Charmain Carter. Then, as now, she found herself standing in an unaccustomed pair of shoes -- black suede pumps, as it turned out -- about to enter a courtroom and pick legal arguments with strangers.
Creshel had not tested onto the mock trial team, the first that Rabouin, or any public school in New Orleans, has fielded in the 18 years since the Louisiana Bar Association established a statewide mock trial competition. Neither had Ja'Meisha Pierre, who sat in the back seat of the van parked at the curb, or Dwane Hughes, who was just now clambering, Burger King bags in both hands, from his mother's car. Jovansia Jones, in the van's front seat, wasn't even in Carter's class. She'd simply made friends with Carter and started dropping by as her classes in the school's nursing program allowed. Four weeks earlier, Carter asked Jovansia if she would play two of the witnesses called for by the mock trial script. "She put it to me that I had to be willing and involved," Jovansia recalled.
"Willie's late. Willie's always late," fretted Carter, hugging herself against the chill. The grey light and empty downtown streets made the cold morning colder. It was 7:45 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26, 15 minutes beyond when they were supposed to start walking to the federal courthouse at Camp and Poydras streets. But Willie Morgan and Lawrence Briggs, who each played witnesses in the case assigned for today, hadn't appeared.
Creshel and Dwane whipped out cell phones to track down their team members' positions. "Willie's approaching Canal Street," Creshel called.
"Where?" shot back Phil Costa, the group's second coach and the only real lawyer there. "Canal's a long street."
Everyone wore black and white but Carter, who wore a blue button-down shirt emblazoned with "Rabouin High School," and Creshel, who'd opted for all black. Track team members trickled in and out of the school building in shiny blue sweats, grumbling that they were on time but the bus for their meet was late. "Good luck," said one of the athletes as the trial students headed off. "You too," said Creshel.
Just then, Willie turned the corner, grinning, wearing a slightly too-large suit, its label still sewn on the sleeve. Costa stopped instinctively and offered to tie the boy's tie, which was flung in a loop around his neck. A few blocks later, at Poydras and Carondelet, Lawrence came into view, ambling up the street, a large plastic bag clutched to his chest.
"Look at Lawrence, he brought his own props!" the group called out. "Sergeant Fife, did you bring your ASP baton and pepper spray?"
"No, it's my shoes," said Lawrence, smiling. "Sergeant Fife" is a prison guard, one of Lawrence's roles in the case.
Poydras was empty. Creshel's mother, whom the kids call "Mama Love," walked with the group, holding Creshel's baby sister by the hand, talking about the TV show Law and Order, how she felt like DA McCoy.
No one was going to have anything to worry about today, she said. Just take a deep breath, trust your instincts, relax. "No one's worked harder than you," she said to the six teens.
In front of the courthouse, about a hundred buttoned-down kids in preppy suits and blazers milled in the plaza. It was definitely not a hip-hop crowd. Everything about these kids suggested clean school buildings and new textbooks. Except for the Rabouin kids, none in the plaza were African Americans.
"We brought the flavor today," said Carter, laughing.
Mama Love kept looking as the group made for the door. Of the Rabouin boys, only Willie was wearing a jacket. "Ms. Carter," Mama Love finally said as they entered the marble lobby, "I think we brought all the flavor today."
THE JUDGE RICHARD N. WARE IV Memorial Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition -- named for the late judge who customarily presided over the last round of the state contest -- offers high school students a chance to peek inside the legal world and see how it ticks. By acting the parts of lawyers and witnesses on either side of the same case, kids learn how to conduct themselves professionally, build a logical argument based on testimony, and think on their feet. It also lets them step freely into a courtroom and take an inside look at the career opportunities, from bailiff and court reporter to judge.
Until this year, however, public school kids in New Orleans didn't get that chance. Organizers for the Young Lawyers Section of the New Orleans Bar Association, which runs the local district tournament, sent word to all of New Orleans' public high schools. Committee members even tried working through public school alumni and calling the district and school board offices. No one bit.
"My feeling is those teachers are so overwhelmed," says Tad Bartlett, chair of the New Orleans Bar Association's mock trial committee from 2002-2004. Tournament participation was low overall -- just five teams from three schools competed in the five-parish district in 2002 -- so Bartlett beefed up his outreach. He offered to match-make for schools that couldn't find their own volunteer lawyer-coaches. With a grant from the American Bar Association, he created a snappy brochure and taped the winning session in 2003 for use in training.
By 2004, the New Orleans district tournament had increased participation to 12 teams. But the only New Orleans public school that registered that year, Warren Easton, failed to field players the day of the competition.
Then, last November, Phil Costa went to a "meet Anthony Amato" gathering, where the superintendent was talking up career-focused signature schools. Costa had coached Bonnabel High School's mock trial team and believed in the program, but he also wanted to work with a school closer to his downtown law office. Calls to the Orleans Parish district offices the year before Amato arrived had gone unreturned.
Seeing his chance with the superintendent, Costa pitched. "I've been working at getting the mock trial competition into the schools," Costa told Amato. "How about it?"
This time, the district called back.
CHARMAIN CARTER'S SHARP VOICE carried through the door of her third-floor classroom. "Creshel, you were reading your opening statement. Last week you knew it." In the middle of the room, Costa perched on a tall stool in his shirtsleeves, part judge, part referee.
"OK, it's four days away," Carter continued. "Nobody can come in tomorrow with a piece of paper to read from. You have no choice."
By that afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 16, Rabouin's mock trial team had been at it for two and a half months, spending most afternoons in Carter's salmon-and-blue classroom. Sometimes they stayed until the janitor chased them out after 7 p.m.
Standing in the hallway at Rabouin, John Rusina, the head of social studies programs for the district, stressed the fit between the mock trial preparation and Amato's goals to involve professionals in the schools and to support the career paths offered in local high schools. Nine of the district's high schools currently have paths related to law or criminal justice. Of these, Carver and Kennedy high schools also signed up for the mock trial. Ben Franklin Senior High School entered the competition as well.
The kids in the next room are just like all kids, Rusina said, but they probably don't have doctors and lawyers at home to open their eyes to those career options. "You want a kid to be able to make smart decisions," Rusina said. "This is one experience that can help them make those decisions."
Inside, an impassioned discussion on admissible testimony was breaking out. "This," Rusina said, cocking his head towards the door, "is learning at its highest level."
It was also hard work. As the final week proceeded, phrases like "May it please the court" and "Isn't it true?" came more easily to the lips of the three student lawyers, and once-timid objections began sounding assertive. The students learned how to impeach a witness and how to confuse those who can't be impeached. They learned not to sway when they stand at the podium, not to narrate, and never, never to ask an open-ended question. And they learned the element that Carter drove home by clenching her fist and drawing it down in front of her: drama.
Carter declined to show the tapes of the final 2003 performance, however. "We have our own cadence, and it's an urban school cadence," she says.
She underscored that belief as her group entered the federal courthouse last Saturday. "You are not country kids," she said, looking at the swarm of students from St. Tammany, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Washington and Orleans parishes. "We're the home team here."
ST. PAUL'S SCHOOL. Louise S. McGehee. Brother Martin. Pope John Paul II. Mandeville High. Fontainebleau High. Ben Franklin. In all, 19 teams from 14 schools showed up for regional tournament on Saturday, Feb. 26. The winner would go on to state, then to the national competition in North Carolina. The halls buzzed with nervous energy.
Kennedy was there, despite losing one of two lawyers to a family funeral. Eleventh grader Michaela County was going it alone, acting out all the attorney roles on both sides of the case so her school could stay in the competition. The team also lost two of its witnesses two days before the event.
Ben Franklin, meanwhile, lost its second team when some members fell below the minimum grade point average required for extracurricular activities. But New Orleans Public Schools still had three teams in competition -- finally.
All the students had the same case. In the course of the day, one fictional sheriff would be maligned and defended over his treatment of immigrant prisoners in every available courtroom on the building's four floors.
In the first round, Rabouin drew Fontainebleau, a public school on the Northshore. In its seventh year of competition, Fontainebleau had its own public-school pride. Rabouin took the prosecution.
"No one here loses," said Willie's mother to another spectator. "If they don't go to the next level, they'll know from this what to expect, how to do it." She expects Willie to participate again next year. "That suit better not go to waste," she said.
Carter and Costa huddled near each other on the back bench. "Object, object!" Carter hissed under her breath as Fontainebleau laid out its case. "That's a bad ruling," Costa muttered at the mock judge. Their eyes darted to the single volunteer who was serving as scorekeeper and jury.
On the witness stand, Jovansia acted pitiful as a beaten prisoner, and Lawrence stumped his cross-examiner with his version of a prison guard. Dwane wrapped up the state's case forcefully. "Your honor, the defendant definitely is lying," he concluded. The other side shot back. "The prosecution has come nowhere close to proving that my client is guilty," retorted the lead attorney, a gangly boy with flushed cheeks.
Round two found Rabouin on defense, facing a team from Pope John Paul II, a private school in Slidell competing for the first time. Pope had been practicing -- hard -- in the Slidell courthouse. Willie floored the gallery with his witness bit, acting the part of the sheriff with attitude, using his street smarts for all they were worth. A black-haired Pope freshman with scarlet cheeks and three years' acting experience was dynamite on prosecution, but Creshel ratcheted up the rhetoric, too. "There has not been a drop of evidence supporting the idea that my client is guilty," she asserted, ringing the case to a close.
Lunch was pizza. The Rabouin students were pumped up. They giggled because two kids they'd just seen looked like Harry Potter. That prompted a riff on making a movie about the Rabouin team. Usher will play Willie. Maybe they'll call it Coach Carter II.
It seemed like an eternity as the judges tallied the scores. Only 10 of the morning's teams would advance to the afternoon round.
"Win or lose, I'm so proud of you," said Carter to her students. "You don't have parents who are lawyers, doctors, judges." One kid's only been here before because he's seen his daddy locked up here, she said. Whether she's at Rabouin next year or not, she said, the kids have to form a mock trial team and return.
A sudden motion in the lobby sent Carter out for a look. A few minutes later, a shrill cry came up from the crowd. Rabouin had made the cut.
BY 2:30 P.M.,THE KIDS FROM Rabouin were hustling toward the elevator to do the unthinkable: go head-to-head with Jesuit. Franklin, too, moved on to the second round.
Make no mistake, Carter said as they rose to the fourth floor. New Orleans Public Schools were still in it.
Then it was over. The Jesuit team was that school's younger team, but they were still cocky, confident, fluid. Creshel, Dwane and Ja'Meisha fought hard for key points. They knew their lines, having rehearsed them over and over. In an hourlong critique at the end of the session, the trial judge commended them all.
But the boys from Jesuit -- the reigning district champ of the mock trial circuit -- controlled the courtroom. They'd worked with seniors who had competed in the national competition. They'd worked with a regular squadron of lawyer dads and alums. The three suits and 20-odd casual dressers who sat behind them clearly expected a win, and they got it. They would fight on to regional finals the next day, ultimately losing to their own school's senior team.
But Rabouin proved something, too -- that it can compete and do well. Next year, John Rusina says, all of the public high schools with law studies courses will add mock trial preparation as an elective. The teachers who helped train teams this year will be asked to write a handbook and to help prepare other teachers. At last, the program has gotten a huge shot of institutional support.
Further, New Orleans Public Schools plans to swell the 2006 regional mock trial competition with a minimum of nine teams. "We'll handle however many we need to," says Maurice Ruffin, the new chair of the New Orleans Bar Association's mock trial committee and a McDonogh 35 alum. "If we have to redouble our efforts to recruit local judges and lawyers, we will."
Franklin's team is already planning its comeback. So is Rabouin, though Dwane was last heard arguing the verdict as his team walked from the courthouse.
"I think," said Dwane thoughtfully, "that you could not say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that we did not actually win."
The New Orleans Bar Association is looking for lawyers to coach school teams on a volunteer basis. Training for the 2006 mock trial competition will begin in the fall. For more information, contact Maurice Ruffin at Ruffin@chaffe.com or call 585-7058.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The Rabouin team: Teacher Charmain Carter, Willie Morgan, Jovansia Jones, Creshel Dillon, Lawrence Briggs, Ja'Meisha Pierre, attorney Phil Costa. Also on the team is Dwane Hughes (not pictured).